Iraq: Chilcot’s lesson for reporting war

WE HAVE BEEN TOLD MANY BIG LIES. In my generation’s 1970s childhood the British Army and Government lied about the way that unarmed demonstrators had been shot dead in Londonderry. At the same time, several of those we watched on children’s TV then were child sex abusers.

Perhaps the greatest and most costly lie we were told was the basis for the invasion of Iraq. In my thirties then, and based in the Middle East as a correspondent for the BBC, I went twice to cover the aftermath of the invasion. I was in Baghdad in December 2003 when Saddam Hussein was captured. I wrote at length about that experience in my first book, Reporting Conflict. The story was hugely exciting to cover, and yet I left Iraq with the grimmest sense that the occupation was not going to end well.


U.S. forces guard a road near where Saddam Hussein was captured. Iraq, December 2003. Photo: James Rodgers

The night after Saddam Hussein’s capture had been announced — with the cocky ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!’ headline from Paul Bremer — I was sleeping on the marble floor of one of the former dictator’s palaces. His residence in Tikrit — loyal heartland where he had hidden, and finally been betrayed — was then the headquarters of an infantry division of the United States army.

No one seemed really to have any idea about what was going on, or how long this might last — but the amount of matériel I was able to see, even then as the winter night fell, was striking for the millions it must have cost to put it all there. The soldier who drove me from the gate to the area where we were to edit our TV material just wanted to know if he could go home soon. The officer I had to talk to wanted to know if I wanted some Starbucks Christmas coffee. He didn’t know whether his telephone could make a call to London.

People — whether Iraqi, Palestinian, or European — do not like living under occupation. They will eventually take up arms. This might sound obvious, but it was just one of the many things which the invaders then failed to take into account.

It is often said the Britain has no history of fascism or communism because its people mistrust big, abstract, political concepts. That may be so. If it is, this was a huge exception.

For this invasion was a big lie based on big ideas: that liberal capitalist democracy would inevitably prevail, and quickly, once the tyrant was done down. The zeal and certainty with which this belief was advanced were more reminiscent of the Bolsheviks than western democratic presidents and prime ministers.

Correspondents covering the invasion and occupation produced some excellent work which explained what was happening. Journalism as a whole did less well: failing to question sufficiently the reasons — especially weapons of mass destruction — which were given for starting the war. More rigorous questioning might have exposed the fact that these claims were baseless.

The New York Times  was among those news organizations who admitted to wishing that it ‘had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.’ At least it had the courage to own up. There were plenty of others who should have done so, too.

Now the story is back in the spotlight. Nothing can be done to make up for the tens of thousands of deaths which resulted from this irresponsible military adventure. Sir John Chilcot, leading the U.K.’s enquiry into the war, has told the BBC ‘The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement being applied to it.’

If there is any lesson to be learnt, it is surely this: ‘challenge, analysis, and assessment’.

This applies obviously to leaders and policy makers. It also applies to editors and correspondents who should always question what they are told, however well a spin doctor presents it.

If it is the case, as Stanley Baldwin said of early 20th century press barons, that the news media aims at having ‘power without responsbility’, then this power can, sometimes at least, be used effectively. This is true more than ever when it is a matter of life and tens of thousands of deaths.


The author in a village north of Baghdad, Iraq December 2003



Warzone journalism : why it matters more than ever

THAT AUTUMN we went everywhere with armed guards. It continued into the Caucasus winter. By the spring, with the separatists driven to mountain hideouts, it became clear that it had probably been safer than we thought all along. Anyone who might have kidnapped us was probably fighting the Russian Army as it sought to bring Chechnya back under the full control of the government in Moscow.

Russian soldiers in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russian soldiers in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

I often wondered how much protection our guards, members of the local, rather than the Russian Federal, Security Services, really afforded us. Still, the dangers were real. A year earlier four Telecoms engineers, three British and one New Zealander, had been kidnapped in Chechnya. When no ransom was paid, they were beheaded.

Their fate was often on my mind that winter. In the couple of years before, the threat of being taken hostage was seen as so great that journalists travelled only rarely to the North Caucasus. The region had not received wide international coverage since the earlier war had reached an uneasy end two years previously. Now the fighting had flared again, and the international press returned in large numbers.

The nature of the conflict had changed, though. Those bearing arms against the government in Moscow seemed increasingly to draw inspiration from their version of Islam. They had no more love for the West than they did for their political overlords in the Kremlin.

Reporting all armed conflict involves risk, sometimes deadly risk. Whatever training and equipment a journalist may be given, the only way to stay safe is to stay away.

I was fortunate enough to be working for the BBC, which gave us the resources we needed to do our job. While the presence of larger news organizations inevitably meant that prices for taxis and translators increased, presenting a further challenge for freelances, there were at least times when freelances could also get help in the form of a lift or a phone link to file.

Great though they were, the risks we faced then seem small compared to those involved in working in Syria or Iraq now. The beheadings (let us not use the word ‘execution’ which, whatever one thinks of the death penalty, does at least include the idea of there having been a trial) of James Foley and Steven Sotloff — along with the deaths of dozens of other journalists — show that.

So why on earth would journalists venture there? There are a number of reasons, and many reporters’ motivation combines some or all of them: curiosity; career advancement; a desire for adventure. There is often, though, a sense of duty, too — a sense that this needs to be done, and so someone needs to do it.

Reporters know the risks, even if they may sometimes underestimate them, or just trust to luck. Those covering conflict have spent enough time among people let down by failed diplomatic initiatives to know that United Nations resolutions about protecting the press count for little either.

Kidnapping is not new. Social media are. The internet has created the opportunity for murderers of journalists to stage public killings of which the 18th century London hangman could not even dream. Public executions drew crowds then. Perhaps they would now.

There is another technological factor here, too. Drone warfare has led to espionage as surveillance from above, rather than words on the ground. Yet for all the opportunities offered to journalism by new technology, nothing has yet replaced the value of talking to people. It also means that journalists are increasingly among the only outsiders who venture to war zones — making them easy targets for those who do not care whom they kill.

The Islamic State have demonstrated that they no longer need traditional media organizations to reach a mass global audience. We still need journalists — those willing to travel to war zones — to explain to us what is happening.

For which is more informative, the horror shows, or the work of journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff? As we seek to understand the world today, we would be lost without the latter.

Telling War Stories

Who can tell us more about the reality of war, reporters, novelists or poets? On Armistice Day, and as next year’s centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, I have published a piece on the website of The Conversation considering literary and journalistic ways of describing armed conflict. You can read it here, and there is a version of the article on this page, too.

Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Deir-el-Balah, Gaza, 2004 ©James Rodgers

Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Deir-el-Balah, Gaza, 2004 ©James Rodgers

It is a shameful chapter in the history of journalism. Millions were killed and maimed during the First World War: about a million from Britain and its empire alone. The mechanization of war made possible killing on a scale never foreseen. Today, some stretches of trench, and craters from explosions still remain: scars on land which once was battlefield.  They help us to imagine the nature of trench warfare: terror; boredom; discomfort; despair.

What a challenge, what an opportunity this conflict was for journalists – a challenge, alas, to which they largely proved unequal. As Philip Knightley concludes in his excellent The First Casualty, ‘More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth.’ The state censored; correspondents frequently cooperated.

Now, as the centenary of the start of the war draws near, it is the poets, and not the reporters, whose writing is remembered.

There must have been some uneasy encounters. In ‘Editorial Impressions’, Siegfried Sassoon shows us a correspondent recounting the ‘glorious time he’d had/ While visiting the trenches.’  The reporter rabbits on before a wounded soldier’s bitter words end the poem, ‘Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way.’

The history of the reporting of conflict is not a story of steady and certain progress. Much of the journalism from the First World War failed to match the standard set by William Howard Russell’s despatches from the Crimea more than half a century before. Russell’s account of the Charge of the Light Brigade is unlikely ever to replace Tennyson’s evocation of the ‘Valley of Death’ in the popular imagination. Yet his description of the aftermath of a later action in the Crimea campaign,

    It was agonizing to see the wounded men who were lying there under a broiling sun,       parched with excruciating thirst, racked with fever, and agonized with pain – to behold       them waving their caps faintly, or making signals towards our lines, over which they could   see the white flag waving.

is so hard-hitting in its eyewitness realism that the reader can almost feel the dying soldiers’ blinding headaches.

After the failures of the First World War, journalism’s reputation was restored in the Second by reporters such as Richard Dimbleby; Ed Murrow; and Vassily Grossman. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, written about his experiences in Vietnam, combines reportage with literary style. It still has a punch and freshness almost 40 years after publication.

The Second World War also inspired the poetry of Keith Douglas – even though one of his most memorable, ‘I listen to the desert wind,’ takes as its theme desolation and heartbreak, rather than soldiering.

Before being killed in Normandy in 1944, Douglas had fought in the Middle East. The region was a battleground in both World Wars — and, in Syria and Iraq, has been much more recently.

From 2002-2004, I was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. In December 2003, I travelled to Iraq for a reporting assignment. A couple of weeks before I left, there was supposed to be a Remembrance Service in one of Gaza’s two Commonwealth War Cemeteries – the final resting place of soldiers engaged in a campaign against Ottoman forces in the First World War. That year, as the second Palestinian intifada – or uprising against Israel – wore on, the ceremony was cancelled. It was too dangerous. I remember, on a later visit to one of the cemeteries, finding gravestones chipped by recent bullets.

In Iraq, officially at least, I encountered optimism among the occupying powers. While I was there, Saddam Hussein was captured. I thought then of Siegfried Sassoon’s character, a ‘gross, goggle-eyed’ father, whose ‘eldest lad/ Writes cheery letters from Bagdad.’  I wondered if another father, perhaps somewhere in the shires, was now, some ninety years later, saying something similar.

If he was, it was premature. Ten years on, there are far fewer people who think the invasion was wise. Iraq produced some memorable war reporting, especially once the insurgency began in 2004. The coverage of the run up to the invasion was less creditable. The New York Times was just one of the news organizations ‘fell for misinformation’. At least they had the courage to admit it.

Where will future generations look for their first-hand accounts of that conflict, to reporters’ despatches, or to writers’ poetry and prose? Perhaps to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, widely praised on publication last year.

Powers himself addressed the journalism or fiction issue in an interview with Jonathan Ruppin of Foyle’s bookshop. His answer was that fiction worked ‘in a different way,’ and, he concluded, ‘The work that journalists do during wartime is utterly essential and, to me, incomprehensibly difficult.’

‘Essential’ and ‘difficult’: words to describe any great writing about war: journalism, or literature.

If you want to read more about my time in Gaza, or Iraq, please see details of my books ‘Reporting Conflict‘ and ‘No Road Home‘ on the ‘About‘ page of this site.

Reporting PTSD and Reporting Conflict



If you didn’t see the BBC’s Panorama programme on Monday, you can still see it here. If you’re outside the UK, there’s also a news story here.

The subject was PTSD – ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ – and the alarmingly high rates of it among British troops who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The programme’s own promotional material claimed it had, ‘found more than 50 cases of soldiers taking their own lives – more than were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012.’

The ex-soldiers who gave interviews were thoughtful and frank. Men trained to think fast in life or death situations showed their reflective side. They explained their situation with disarming clarity, as did the parents, partners, and siblings of those no longer alive to tell their own stories.

It was distressing. It was also shameful. Some of those interviewed had fallen on hard times, with little or no prospect of employment and, in some cases, no pensions. You imagine maimed soldiers begging on the streets during the Napoleonic Wars, and hope it could not happen today. Yet service personnel seem to be over represented among the ranks of the homeless. A quick internet search reveals that the housing charity Shelter even has a page to advise people preparing to leave the armed forces. Those in the programme that did have somewhere to live were often short of money.

Journalists covering conflict can usually leave the warzone if they want to, an option not available to a soldier. Yet professional pride, in oneself, or pressure, from colleagues, can sometimes lead people to stay when they should not. Working for the BBC in Gaza, I remember being told sometimes to take a break. It is not always long term exposure which can cause PTSD. A single terrifying incident can also cause great distress. One of the soldiers featured in the programme had seen a little girl in Iraq get her legs blown off by explosives hidden in the road.

Shell damaged to a building in Grozny, Chechnya 1995 ©James Rodgers

Shell damage to a building in Grozny, Chechnya, 1995 ©James Rodgers

In Chechnya in 1995, a team of BBC colleagues and I were lucky to survive a Russian air force strike on a square in Grozny. The attack killed two of the fighters we had been talking to as the planes came in. We emerged from our hastily-taken shelter, still half-deafened by the explosion, to see their bodies lying on the street. I was very shaken, but relieved. Six months later, on holiday with my then girlfriend, I had terrible nightmares three nights in a row as I relived what had happened. The incident has never troubled again me in the 18 years since. I see it now as the negative experience leaving my system, but only once I felt relaxed and safe.

Patrick Howse, a friend and former BBC colleague, was diagnosed with PTSD after working in Iraq. He has chosen to make public his experience. One way he has addressed it is by writing poetry. You can find some of his work on his website or on Poetry Zoo.

Soldiers have long recounted their war experience in poetry, most famously in the First World War, where generally they did a better job of telling the story than the journalists who were their contemporaries.

It was the First World War that brought ‘shell shock’ into common speech. It was not until much later that studies on the effects on journalists of covering combat started to be analysed. Dr Anthony Feinstein’s study (in which I took part) in the early years of this century led the way.

More work has been done since, including by the Dart Center, offering practical help and advice.

During that sometimes terrifying trip to the Caucasus in 1995, a more experienced colleague offered the view that, if you wanted to be totally safe, you had to stay at home. It was a reminder then, in a time when safety training for reporters covering conflict was first coming in, that there were limits to the protection it could offer.

The risks are to mind as well as body.